Obituary: Ken Ramage, founder of the Nairn Jazz Festival, jazz promoter and businessman

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Ken Ramage, founder of the Nairn Jazz Festival Born: 2 January, 1935, in Alloa Died: 5 September, 2011, in Inverness, aged 76.

Ken Ramage, who has died suddenly at the age of 76, was a unique figure in the jazz scene – both at home in Scotland and in the wider world. The jazz promoter and founder of the Nairn Jazz Festival was known throughout the global jazz community as a passionate champion of the music; someone who was driven by his love of jazz and his desire to share it with as many of his friends and neighbours as he could.

Over more than two decades, he ensured that, rather than flying over our heads en-route from the US to Europe, a steady stream of top American jazz musicians stopped off in Nairn; a detour many of them were more than happy to make.

Houston Person, the tenor saxophonist who was recently booked to return to Nairn at the end of this month, said: “I’d never been to Scotland until Ken invited me. He introduced me to a part of the world I never thought I’d see – and I’ll always be indebted to him.”

The great cornettist Ruby Braff could not have hoped for a better ending to his career than the wonderfully relaxed final concert he gave in Nairn, surrounded by friends, just months before his death in 2003.

The story of the Nairn Jazz Festival and its rise to international renown as a festival mentioned in the same breath as the big boys of Nice and Newport, was the stuff of Ealing comedies. Just as the plucky cockneys took on both the Germans and the government in Passport to Pimlico, and the wily islanders outwitted the authorities in Whisky Galore, so Ramage and his team defied the odds to put their event on the jazz map.

Despite funding problems and the fact that it received little to no media coverage in the rest of the country, the festival emerged early in its life as a fixture in the jazz calendar – one to which fans travelled from afar, and to which musicians clamoured to be invited.

The veteran US pianist Dick Hyman says: “For a New Yorker, Nairn was a wonderfully different experience, and Ken and his family and friends were among the nicest people I’ve known.”

Hyman’s colleague, saxophonist and clarinettist Bob Wilber, who was one of the first jazz artists to appear in Nairn, agrees: “He was very generous to us musicians.

“He would ask us what we’d like to do – unlike other festival organisers. And he was doing it purely for the pleasure of presenting jazz – and jazz of the highest standard.”

It was the need to share the pleasure he found in jazz that motivated Ramage. Bass player Andrew Cleyndert, one of several London-based musicians who regularly travelled up north to work for Ramage, says: “He wasn’t driven by high-falutin’ ideals about keeping the music going, or sponsoring cutting-edge musicians or putting on some artsy festival. His commitment was to his audience to share with them the joy he had discovered in music – and his primary concern at the end of each concert was whether his audience had enjoyed it or not.”

Ramage singlehandedly built an audience for jazz in Nairn and its environs and he was, as Cleyndert puts it, “fearless” in programming the festival. He made the decisions, which were often unconventional but always driven by enthusiasm. If a musician impressed him, he would invite them back as soon as possible – in the case of the pianist Gene Harris, in 1994, that meant two Nairn dates in as many months. If he took a shine to a new singer he heard on Michael Parkinson’s radio show, he would make it his business to book them for Nairn as soon as there was a gap in their schedule and, in the cases of Jane Monheit and Steve Tyrell, before they played anywhere else in the country.

While other promoters might shy away from an untested new name or a repeat performance by a musician who had played for them not long before, Ramage could rely on his audience to support him; such was the infectiousness of his enthusiasm for the music. His respect for the audience was reciprocated; Nairn is the only festival I’ve ever attended where punters routinely queued up at the end of concerts to shake the organiser’s hand as if they were at a wedding.

Ramage was well-known locally before he embarked on his second career as a jazz promoter. A successful businessman, he owned a trio of fruit and veg shops (in Nairn, Forres and Inverness) plus a wholesale business, and in the early days of the jazz festival, before he retired, strawberries and cream were served at concerts and fruit baskets were the big prizes at interval raffles.

Ken Ramage was born in January 1935 in Alloa, where his family owned a jewellery shop. His first experiences of live music were classical and didn’t appeal to him – until a holiday in the Trossachs when he was a youngster. He was staying in a hotel where a classical pianist was recuperating from an illness. As the pianist practised Chopin, Ramage fell under the music’s spell – or perhaps it was the instrument’s spell: he went on to become known as an aficionado of jazz piano, and brought some of the world’s best jazz pianists to Nairn, among them Monty Alexander, Gene Harris, Ray Bryant, John Bunch and Bill Charlap. Indeed, the final edition of the Nairn Jazz Festival, in 2009, had as its centrepiece a concert featuring four top pianists playing two grand pianos.

After serving his time in the family’s jewellery business, Ramage – who often credited hearing Ella Fitzgerald, Oscar Peterson and the like in the Jazz at the Philharmonic touring show when it came to Glasgow as a defining moment in his musical life – decided to branch out on his own. As a hillwalker, he had grown to love the Highlands, so he scoured the north for a property where he could set up shop. He found one in Forres that was owned by a greengrocer – and decided to ditch the jewellery and sell fruit and veg instead.

In the 1980s, with the help of the late Lachie Shaw of Platform Jazz in Inverness, Ramage began to stage jazz concerts and, inspired by the classic film Jazz on a Summer’s Day, which documented the 1958 Newport Jazz Festival, he launched his own annual event in Nairn; the combination of jazz, beautiful scenery, great hospitality and a warm, knowledgeable audience proving irresistible to visiting aficionados and musicians alike.

Ramage is survived by his partner, Roslin, and their children, Kenneth and Jennifer. ALISON KERR